Continuing the series that I began a few weeks ago, this post will once again be about how to read and interpret a controversial Biblical passage. However, in contrast to my previous posts, which explored how traditional Jewish commentaries respond to tough texts, this time, I’ll be exploring an argument made by Christian Biblical scholars. I’m doing that because
A. I like their argument
B. I haven’t found Jewish sources on this topic to be as helpful.
Getting to the heart of the matter, today I want to talk about the Old Testament commandment, issued by God, for the Israelites to utterly destroy the entire Amalekite nation. Here’s the text:
“Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Granted, the Alamekites seem like pretty horrible people in this passage. But the command to “blot” them out also seems overly harsh. In the Book of Samuel, God commands King Saul to carry out this command of destruction, and is very explicit about its brutality:
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
(I Samuel 15:3)
If we are being honest about the text here, this commandment sounds like genocide. How could a good, just God command something like this?
Well, what if He didn’t? In the book Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, by Paul Copan and Matthew Flanagan, they explain and defend this position.
These scholars try to answer the question: Did Saul literally kill every single Amalekite, or was the divine command simply hyperbolic, merely referring to a decisive, total military victory? By analogy, in sports, “totally destroying” the other team can just mean that you beat them by a lot.
But why should we assume this genocidal command isn’t and wasn’t meant to be taken literally? Well for one thing, we find the nation of Amalek mentioned again and again in the Bible even after Saul allegedly wiped them all out. Even in the very same book of Samuel, in chapters 27 (verse 8) and 30, we find that King David fights the Amalekites, who supposedly all died 12 chapters ago!
Here’s what Copan and Flanagan have to say about this startling inconsistency:
“This text affirms not only that the Amalekites still existed, but the reference to Egypt and Shur states that they existed in the very same area where Saul ‘utterly destroyed’ every single one of them (15: 8, 20). What’s more, David took sheep and cattle as plunder. Clearly, in terms of what the narrative says, the Amalekites were not all destroyed— nor were all the animals finally destroyed in Gilgal in chapter 15. Instead, many people and livestock from the region had survived Saul’s attack.“
This is the first critical point: The Bible itself mentions Amalekites roaming around even after the command and implementation of the supposed genocide. This fact alone lends credence to the idea that the command to Saul to destroy “all” the Amalekites was hyperbolic, rather than literal.
Next, here’s the historical evidence that Copan and Flanagan provide to read the text this way. Essentially, they show that Ancient Near Eastern texts written around the same time as our biblical one often use exaggerated “warfare rhetoric” that are obviously non literal and just meant to signify total destruction.
The Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff makes the point very well:
“Anyone who reads the book of Joshua in one sitting cannot fail to be struck by the prominent employment of formulaic phrasings…. Far more important is the formulaic clause, “struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword.”
The first time one reads that Joshua struck down all the inhabitants of a city with the edge of the sword, namely, in the story of the conquest of Jericho (6:21), one makes nothing of it. But the phrasing—or close variants thereon—gets repeated, seven times in close succession in chapter 10, two more times in chapter 11, and several times in other chapters. The repetition makes it unmistakable that we are dealing here with a formulaic literary convention.
Thus, the violence being described in Joshua and Samuel is stylized, formulaic, and is intentionally exaggerated because the point of the story is not simply to tell over what literally happened. Ancient readers would have been totally comfortable reading the text this way. The noted Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen provides a number of examples of Ancient Near Eastern hyperbolic rhetoric about victories in war:
“The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made very clear…. In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni, was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-existent” —whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later, about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always”—a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so on, ad libitum. It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood.”
To conclude, based on both
1. internal inconsistencies in the biblical text itself about nations being “annihilated” but then suddenly reappearing and
2. comparisons to other contemporaneous Ancient Near East texts about war, which employ what’s called “warfare rhetoric” to exaggerate the scale of victories,
there’s a decent argument to be made that the Biblical commands and descriptions of mass violence, total war, and genocide are not describing something that actually happened or was commanded. Rather, these were commonly used hyperbolic ways of saying that a decisive victory occurred or that an enemy was defeated.
I hope I presented this argument clearly, and maybe provided some comfort to those of you who have been bothered by this question of alleged genocide in the Old Testament. Share your thoughts and criticisms in the comments; there is a lot more to say here and I’d love to read some other perspectives on the topic. Thanks for reading!